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  • Horizons of Grace:Marilynne Robinson and Simone Weil
  • Katy Ryan

The sorrow is that every soul is put out of house.

Marilynne Robinson1

All of us, even the youngest, are in a situation like Socrates' when he was awaiting death in prison and learning to play the lyre.

Simone Weil2

Marilynne Robinson's first novel Housekeeping (1980) is a meditative and lyrical reflection on old themes: abandonment, loss, grief, renewal, hope, memory—what the narrator Ruth Stone calls the "sad and outcast state of revelation" (p. 184). The novel returns in its opening pages to the suicide of Ruth's mother, Helen, and concludes with a bridge crossing, misinterpreted by other characters as intentional death. Critical responses to the novel usefully explore its nineteenth-century American literary impulses (Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Melville), its reworking of female subjectivity, its quiet insistence on the transience of all things and the unmaking of boundaries.3 Words on suicide are scarce. In this inattention, critics may be following the lead of the novel, which, among novels containing acts of self-destruction,is exceptional in its almost total reticence on the subject. Not one character asks why Helen kills herself, and little emerges from the narrative to shed light on the unasked question.

Structurally, the function of the mother's suicide seems obvious. Helen's death creates two orphans—that preferred status in literature that frees characters up for adventure and self-discovery. It also appears to be the cause, or at least a leading cause, of Ruth's sadness. Ruth's aunt Sylvie assumes this to be true. After the deaths of their mother and [End Page 349] grandmother, Ruth and her sister Lucille are passed off by their overwhelmed great aunts to Sylvie, a woman who has been wandering the country, hopping trains, getting by. When the concerned women in the town of Fingerbone attempt to determine how best to keep Ruth from following in Sylvie's uncivil footsteps, to keep her "safely within doors" one of them remarks on how sad Ruth always looks.

And Sylvie replied, "Well, she is sad."
Sylvie said, "She should be sad." She laughed. "I don't mean she should be, but, you know, who wouldn't be?"
Again, silence.

(p. 185)

The unsaid is met with repeated silence. Sylvie proposes that anyone who had survived what Ruth has survived, understood to be her mother's death, would be sad, should be sad. A long silence also greets Sylvie's discomforting observation that Ruth is "'like another sister to me. She's her mother all over again'" (p. 182).

The generating absence of the mother sets the stage for Ruth's spiritual exile and eventual communion, the moment when a "word so true" comes home to her. Ruth does not, in fact, become "her mother all over again."Born of people falling to their deaths (Ruth's mother and grandfather), Housekeeping ends with a counter-image, an image of crossing over a bridge (horizontality) rather than falling from it (verticality). One way to think about the philosophical movement in the novel is provided by Simone Weil's writing, which relies of tropes of gravity. I am particularly interested in connections between Housekeeping and Simone Weil's Gravity and Grace (1952) and Waiting for God (1992). These texts explore the nature of suffering by focusing on the inevitability of waiting, the practice of attention, and the necessity of detachment.

Although Weil wrote movingly and persuasively about industrial labor, war, and other forms of political oppression, here I emphasize her spiritual writings. In his introduction to First and Last Notebooks, Richard Rees writes of Weil, "One may say that two of her chief preoccupations were, first, how to organize a society so that suffering should be reduced to a minimum, and, second, how to ensure that the (large) irreducible minimum should not be valueless" (p. viii). Housekeeping dramatizes this second concern. The novel also provides a needed fictional example of decreation, Weil's difficult name for the [End Page 350] process by which something created can be transformed into something uncreated, or "the act of allowing moments empty of meaning to remain 'unfilled.'"4 The suicide...


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